Workers’ rights really are human rights

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Workers’ rights are human rights, and we have a moral and legal obligation to protect them. No one should be allowed to exploit workers simply to run a more profitable or efficient business. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Economic and Social Rights.

Virginia Mantouvalou
21 October 2014

Most of us spend most of our lives working.  This means that workers’ rights, such as freedom of association, the right to strike, the prohibition of slavery, servitude, forced and compulsory labour, and the right to fair and just working conditions, are vital. When employers treat their workers with respect, the workplace can be a place of self-fulfilment. When they treat workers with contempt, however, it turns into a site of exploitation and humiliation.

But are workers’ rights really human rights?

A few workers’ rights are codified in international treaties protecting civil and political rights, such as the right to form and join trade unions. Other workers’ rights, including the right to work, strike or have fair and just working conditions, are mentioned only in treaties dealing with economic and social rights.

Yet since many view social rights treaties as weaker because they are not “justiciable” in a court of law, some say social rights are mere “aspirations”, rather than “real” human rights.

Others disagree, claiming that all human rights are interdependent. You cannot protect some human rights and neglect others, because they are mutually supportive. Workers’ rights exemplify this connection. The right to work means little, unless there is also a right to decent work; one cannot claim that the right to work is protected when workers are exploited.  Also the prohibition of slavery, servitude, forced and compulsory labour cannot be separated from the right to decent work.


Bread for the World/Flickr (Some rights reserved)

A migrant farm-worker carrying cucumbers in Virginia, USA. Human rights give workers a voice and offer political and moral space for the most vulnerable of groups, such as the unorganized, under-skilled, and undocumented.

Still, classification of workers’ rights as human rights is controversial. Consider, for example, debates between proponents of rights of workers on solidarity and human rights, or on rights and workers’ power. Many of these debates focus on trade union rights, which are important because of the unequal bargaining power between employers and workers. Some activists use the law and courts to promote workers’ interests, while others use human rights language to emphasise the morally important nature of workers’ claims.

Sceptics, however, believe human rights are individualistic and thus fundamentally different from workers’ collective rights. They fear that focusing on individual human rights, rather than group worker rights, will undermine worker solidarity.

Making individual claims does not necessarily harm other strategies, however, and can sometimes complement them. Collective labour rights are framed as individual rights in human rights treaties, but are there in order to help people pursue collective, solidaristic goals. For example the European Convention on Human Rights protects the right to form and join a trade union for the promotion of workers’ interests. It is clear in the text, and has been supported by case law, that unionising is protected in order to pursue the interests of workers and to promote their collective goals.

At the same time, trade unions can bring claims too—it is not only individual workers that can use the legal machineries in place. In fact, one of the most notorious cases on trade union rights in Europe was brought by individuals and unions together.

Strategies, of course, vary on circumstances and context. In Europe, labour rights activists have recently been successful in taking cases to the European Court of Human Rights, which has ruled that the right to strike is essential for freedom of association and has issued rulings protecting migrant domestic workers. In Latin America, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has said that the rights of undocumented workers are indeed human rights, in a most insightful way, by arguing that workers’ rights depend on the status of being human, and not on someone’s status as a documented migrant.

Outside the courts, activists have successfully presented workers’ claims as human rights. Human Rights Watch, for instance, recently issued a powerful report on migrant domestic workers in the UK. The report discusses workers’ rights (like minimum wage and maximum working time) as human rights, exemplifying how “human rights are also about social justice.” 

Beyond courts, legal entitlements for workers can give focus and impetus to campaigns of activists and ultimately award greater dignity. This can be exemplified by recent debates in the UK around new “modern slavery” legislation. These debates have empowered organisations and given focus to campaigns promoting workers’ rights and human rights.

Connecting workers’ rights to human rights shows that workers’ rights are vital, and... in most cases, trump arguments of profit and efficiency.Human rights are, above all, moral claims about the normative standards towards which all decent societies should strive. As moral claims, rights are grounded in human dignity, citizenship and equality, all of which individuals must enjoy both outside and within the workplace. Both states and employers are bound to respect human rights principles for their citizens and their workers.

Connecting workers’ rights to human rights shows that workers’ rights are vital, and must not be traded off casually. They should, in most cases, trump arguments of profit and efficiency. 

Human rights are valuable for workers. They give workers a voice and offer political and moral space for the most vulnerable of groups, such as the unorganised, under-skilled, and undocumented. They demand that the law protect workers, and that no one can easily do away with them. Finally, with human rights to back them, workers are able to refuse exploitation done in the name of efficiency.


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